As cities such as Copenhagen, Toronto and Zurich race to create the future of sustainable communities, what is the history of built-space innovation that led us to this new era of environmentally conscious living?
Humanity has always been creative with built spaces, designing for shelter and energy management, from the earliest architecture of Göbekli Tepe to today's modern, intelligent buildings. The idea of environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals is a relatively recent development, but people have been working for decades to make more energy-efficient, sustainable buildings.
Here we have outlined what we’re calling the “Eras of Sustainability” to explore how past trends lead to future innovations that impact people and the planet alike. The following timeline analyzes U.S. construction practices from the 1700s up until now through the lens of environmental impact, comfort and energy use and tracks the significant milestones for building innovations.
How far have we come, and where are we going? How do our structures affect or mitigate climate change? We will stand on these foundations to build the future of sustainable spaces that will help us make the most of our Earth’s precious natural resources.
Eras of Sustainability Timeline
Sustainable, Pre-Industrial Life (pre-1700s):
Before the Industrial Revolution, humans built their shelters with easily accessible/created materials. Their primary purpose was to insulate and shelter people from the outside elements and provide comfort, community and safety.
The Birth of Industry: Impact of Pollution on the Environment (1700-1850):
With the advent of factories and urban cities during the Industrial Revolution, buildings begin to have a negative environmental impact. Coal is the most used energy source, and commercial buildings are polluters that cause localized issues such as smog and ash. City populations begin to grow, and for most built structures, little thought is given to environmental impact, safety or occupant comfort.
Introduction of Oil, Gas and Electricity (1850-1950):
Scientists begin to study pollution and the effects of climate change. New energy sources are introduced to modern life and increase the impact of climate change. The petroleum industry begins to boom as humans use oil to power their homes and cars. Throughout this period, inventors develop applications for solar power, such as thermal batteries and solar water heaters. By 1945, most Americans power their homes with electricity and have the luxury of indoor running water.
Emergence of Renewable and Recyclable Power (1950-2000):
Air conditioning became common in commercial buildings in the 1950s, and tenant comfort is a concern for property owners for the first time. Air conditioning becomes one of the most prolific users of electricity. Architecture changes and complex concrete buildings are common in the 1970s for commercial buildings. As the world becomes more aware of the effects of carbon emissions on the ozone layer, renewable energy sources are introduced, but petroleum and coal remain the top energy sources.
The world’s first nuclear power plant opened in 1956, but nuclear power in developed countries peaks in the 1990s. Technologies such as radiant heat, radiant floors and chilled floors are abandoned for convection.
Increasing Urgency for Sustainability (2000-2022):
Public awareness of global warming builds as more public figures adopt environmental platforms, 24/7 broadcast news networks cover catastrophic disasters such as oil spills, and the world begins feeling the direct impact of climate change. There is increased investment in powering buildings with renewable energy, and as of 2020, 30% of all electricity worldwide is created with renewable resources.
Buildings are redesigned for LED lighting, lowering energy by at least 75% and reducing the heat from incandescent bulbs. Humanity still faces hurdles in widely adopting renewable energy and lessening its dependency on fossil fuels. Increased demand for electrification for transportation is a game changer in commercial and public spaces.
Electric vehicles require charging stations, and built spaces are racing to install chargers to meet public demand. Electrical infrastructure for vehicles will be the catalyst that moves the U.S. away from fossil fuels. Smart lighting/HVAC systems use continues to increase, so commercial spaces only need to turn on these utilities when people are present. Software and hardware work together in the form of sensors and AI to only use energy when needed.
Solutions at the Intersection of Sustainability and Technology Pave a Path Toward a Greener Future (2022 onward):
The future of sustainability requires vast amounts of data that can be quickly interpreted and automatically reacted to. It also requires a workforce of energy professionals that oversee energy use and can continue developing better management methods. A few trends that will continue to gain traction include mixed-use buildings, 15-minute cities and urban farming.
Commercial buildings will have electric vehicle charging stations, increasing the demand for power by 250%. Windows, heating and cooling systems will evolve to insulate buildings better as extreme heat and cold become more common. Facilities will adopt programmable thermostats that interact with sensors only to heat, cool and light buildings when a human occupies the space. High-end buildings will leverage AI and machine learning to predict how energy can be best managed for tenant comfort and sustainability.
These technologies will consider the environment and weather forecasting, and even traffic awareness to shift energy use for when people will be present. Public spaces will be more creative about energy management.
One example is data centers, which currently account for about 3% of worldwide energy consumption. In the future, data centers will repurpose energy that would have otherwise been lost as heat to warm greenhouses that can grow fruit/vegetables in cold areas.
Technology creates more opportunities for people to work in the energy sector and make our buildings, cities, nations, and thus the entire globe a more environmentally friendly place to live.